Havana, Cuba:Cuban Women Host International Women's conference
Maria Teresa is the young lawyer student at the University of Havana,
preparing for work as a Cuban diplomat. She earns a student stipend of
about $12 a month. Her parents help with small donations.
Violeta is the young maid in the dollar hotel (the tourist economy),
she leaves me towel origami everyday?one day arranged like a sailboat,
one day like a flower vase, one day like a silly snake with google eyes.
She earns about $12 a month in Cuban pesos. She is married and has (just
one!) a five-year-old daughter.
Yolanda is the fierce little student in the foreign language school,
learning German and English. She comes from Guantanamo city, in the
east; she tells of how poor the Cubans were when the Soviets pulled
out?some melted latex condoms and put them on pizza to look like cheese.
Alicia is the older woman on whose steps I ask to sit when I am wiped
out by walking on an empty stomach for miles along the Malecon, the
seawall of old Havana, through the thick blue diesel fumes. She, like
many Cubans, asks me to find a missing cousin of hers in the U.S. Like
most Cubans, she reassures me that "the people of Cuba know that the
strangling embargo is not the fault of the American people, but of the
Leonora is the impassive young prostitute, wearing a skintight striped
rose-and-white leotard with fringes, as beautiful as a nudibranch,
hanging on the arm of a hatchet-faced white man, a foreigner easily 20
years her senior.
Nilsa is the worker in the cabbage fields. She works chopping the
heads out of the fields and tossing them into bins and then on trucks.
Cabbage is a good source of vitamin C and is a staple vegetable here.
She knows this and is proud of her contribution.
Lourdes is the professor of psychology who presents a paper at the
University of Havana conference. She describes the pressure on each
Cuban woman to find her identity in a world where there is little to
reflect her unique experience of life on the island of Cuba?an island of
socialist revolution, the leader in social indicators for all Latin
America, under crushing embargo by the United States.
These women and many more are the subjects--and authors--of the Fourth
International Conference on Women held in Havana; this one entitled,
"Standing on the Threshold of the Twenty-first Century," was held
November 12-16, ending last Friday. Over 300 women, largely from all
over the world, but especially the western hemisphere and Latin America,
presented papers on gender and socioeconomic development, migration,
health, education, art and literature, power, identity and the life
cycle, violence, science and technology, feminist thought, environment,
subjectivity, family, sexuality, race, class, ethnicity, history, and
social communication, and the rights of women.
The situation of the Cuban women has been transformed by the 1960
Revolution. Western feminists may see, at first, only the
contradictions?the persistent sexism of Latin culture, perhaps, or the
racist colonial burdens, the breathtaking poverty and painful class
But before the Revolution at least half of the women in Cuba were
illiterate; Cuba now has higher literacy rates than the United States.
The accomplishment of developing a people through education in one
generation is astounding. Cuba has carried out what the UN is still
pushing as an idea throughout the developing world: that education of
the women is key to the education of the children, and that educating
girls is key both to development and to stopping the epidemic of AIDS.
The Cubans say they are fighting a battle of ideas, and it is clear that
here they are winning. The educational program was first to eliminate
illiteracy; second, to raise the educational standard to at least a
ninth-grade level. That is also now accomplished. Today women are 67% of
the university students.
Cuban women still don't have anywhere near their share of power at the
top. They still bear the double burden of housework and child care as
well as paid work (37% of the Cuban workforce is women). But the women
in Cuba have day care centers. They have access to both on-site
university classes, as well as a "university for all" sent over the
public TV network and eagerly followed, that presents regular university
classes of all kinds.
Eighty-five percent of the women over age 14 are organized in the very
active and influential FMC, the women's organization. The FMC is not
part of the government, but acts independently and to which the
government defers on women's issues.
The significance of this transformation is much wider than the island of
Cuba. Cuba is the leader in social indicators for the whole of Latin
America. And Fidel Castro is greatly loved and respected throughout
Latin America, as in Cuba itself, regardless of contradictions and
dissent. The women of Cuba are thus poised to become social and
political leaders of the hemisphere in this new century.
The Cuban women certainly participated actively in the other major
conference that was going on in Havana last week?the hemispheric
coalition to oppose the free trade pushed by the United States. The
Cubans characterize these trade initiatives as a U.S. attempt to
recolonialize and annex Latin America. They say that the initiatives are
plunging countries back into poverty, threatening women's advance.
Participants at this second conference added language to their final
declaration and action plan to recognize the importance of gender in all
aspects of the struggle. Delegates spoke vehemently of the need to
establish email networks and list-servs to share information. Both
conventions called attention to the situation of the Afghan women, and
urged their inclusion in the postwar government.
The Catedra de la Mujer (Women's Studies Department) at the University
of Havana made a CD-ROM of all the papers presented last week. The
leader of the conference was Norma Vasallo.
Mayda Alvarez Suarez, Inalvis Rodriguez Reyes, Perala Popowski Casan,
and Ana V. Casteneda Marrero. [Cuban surnames are the one in the
middle.] Situacion de la Ninez, la adolescencia, la mujer y la familia
en cuba [Status of Childhood, Adolescence, the Woman, and the Family 1n
Cuba.] Havana: December 2000. Published jointly by the Centro de
Estudios de la Mujer, Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas [Federation of Cuban
Women] (FMC), and UNICEF.
Centro de Estudios de la Mujer, FMC. "La mujer cubana de hoy." ["The
Cuban woman today"] Revista Bimestre Cubana de la Sociedad Economica de
los Amigos del Pais [Bimonthly Cuban Journal of the Economic Society of
Friends of the Country], vol. 86 (July-December 1999) Series 3, no.
Marta I. Dominguez. "Questiones de genero y la educacion in Cuba"
["Questions of gender and education in Cuba."] Revista Bimestre Cubana
de la Sociedad Economica de los Amigos del Pais [Bimonthly Cuban Journal
of the Economic Society of Friends of the Country], vol. 86
(July-December 1999) Series 3, no. 11:146-152.
Linda Purrington, a U.S. women's rights activist, presented a paper on
"Strategies of Achieving Gender Equity in Education," at the Fourth
International Conference on the Women on November 16, 2001. Contact:
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